Cetaphil: Why the Popular Cleanser Isn’t Doing Your Skin Any Favors
And Alexia Brue
January 13

Cetaphil probably has the best PR of any facial soap. Beauty magazines gush over it as a no-frills $8 must-have. Dermatologists love to recommend it as a mild and non-irritating facial cleanser for two reasons: it doesn’t contain fragrance and, more tellingly, because MDs have a big Pharma love affair with the manufacturer, Galderma, the offspring of Nestlé and L’Oréal, which also makes acne drugs like Differin.

And yet there’s nothing healthy about this face-washing prescription.

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser contains just eight ingredients: water, cetyl alcohol, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, stearyl alcohol, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben.

All but the water are chemically manufactured (let’s hope), and propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, and the three parabens have a seat on the dirty dozen, a list of cosmetic ingredients to avoid as potentially toxic.

One look at the label and you’ve got to go “Wait a minute! What?”says Spirit Demerson, who analyzes skin-care ingredients for Spirit Beauty Lounge, her online natural beauty store. “Cetaphil does not contain even one single beneficial ingredient and what it does contain is the equivalent of toxic sludge. Whether you think it’s keeping your skin healthy or not, it is absorbed into your bloodstream and research has proven almost all of the few ingredients in it are carcinogenic. I know it’s hard to imagine that washing your face can give you cancer but it’s worth consideration.”

The ingredients in this popular Gentle Skin Cleanser don’t support the name.

Julia March, a top NYC facialist, says that so many New Yorkers believe that Cetaphil is healthy, they tend ignore the ingredients completely. “Cetyl alcohol, an emollient used in many cosmetics, is essentially a wax,” says March. “Propylene glycol is a common humectant (meaning it brings moisture from the air to the skin), but it also enhances product and chemical penetration into the skin and blood stream. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a foaming agent, and skin and eye irritant, that disturbs the healthy lipid barrier of the skin, and parabens are a group of preservatives being phased out for potential health risks.”

Given that there’s actually nothing clean about this cleanser, it’s rather amazing that millions of women think their skin will freak out if they use anything else. “It may not irritate skin very much, but it probably won’t help it much either,” says Nicole Yih, Assistant Spa Director at the Mandarin Oriental New York. That’s because there’s nothing in Cetaphil that nurtures skin. No antioxidants that help fight free radical damage; not a dribble of omega-rich plant seed oils that fortify the skin barrier; and not a drop of skin-calming botanicals.

A cleanser that you use twice a day should be judged on what it gives your skin. Consider this your new cleanser criterion.

Get Our Top 25 Wellness Tips — Sign up for Dr. Lipman’s Free Newsletter

  • Julie Nusbaum

    I appreciate your point, and it leads me to question my twice daily Cetaphil use. But there is one important nuance to point out- part of the reason dermatologists like to recommend Cetaphil is precisely because it doesn't contain any “nurturing” ingredients. They are in most cases prescribing/advising you other topical treatments to do that. In theory. Though probably from this point of view, those treatments aren't “nurturing” either. I am not sure.

  • Aliana

    So what facial cleanser should we be using?

  • Karinamuro

    Thank you for the information. I always thought cetaphil was the best option. Of course every dermatologist I've been recommended cetaphil. I cant believe I never checked the ingridients list. Even my 13 year old daughter has been using it for a couple of years. Urg! Can you recommend one or more facial cleanser?

  • Samanthacl21

    Origins is an all natural makeup and skin care company… although personally I have to use something with salicylic acid or my face breaks out like crazy. I would just recommend looking for ingredients in your face soap (and everything else you eat and put on your body) that you can pronounce. Also check out http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.c…/ as you can search through the products you use and they rate the ingredients and if they're cancerous.

  • Noeline

    what facial cleanser should be used?

  • RHSC

    ive been going to the skin deep ewg dot org web site.. i test products and see the horrible toxins in so many things we put on our faces and bodies. i had some skin cancer and i really think it was from these products sold in most drug stores.some sunblock even has cancer causing chemicals– now im using plain castile soap ,dr bronner, vitamin e , shea butter,  braggs organic vinegar and making my own skin care lotions -all natural for sure this time – be careful..just because it says natural on the lable  doesnt mean it it.. most of the marketing is a false promise for a healthy product. clp nyc

  • blab

    Thanks so much for this! I see it also contains parabens, believed to act like hormones in the body and dangerous for pregnat women!

  • Beth R

    Ava Anderson Non-Toxic has a lovely line of non-toxic skin care products. We use lots of organic ingredients and being TRULY non-toxic is important to us–no greenwashing here! And best of all, the owner of the company, Ava Anderson, and her mother Kim also work for safer chemical legislation–walking the talk! http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/bethruggles

  • Beth R

    Because I see so many people asking about safe alternatives, here is a reply I made below: Ava Anderson Non-Toxic has a lovely line of non-toxic skin care products. We use lots of organic ingredients and being TRULY non-toxic is important to us–no greenwashing here!
    And best of all, the owner of the company, Ava Anderson, and her mother
    Kim also work for safer chemical legislation–walking the talk!
    http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/bethruggles

  • LP

    use all natural oil…. in example….Jojoba oil with a drop of tea tree oil.

  • CosmePro

    I looked up Ava and am dismayed by the scrub’s ingredients. Any cosmetic company should know that using apricot kernals to exfoliate with is a HUGE no-no. Apricot kernel (no matter how fine it’s ground) will cause miniscule cuts into the dermis, creating a nice home for bacteria to harbor. It will also age your skin over time since aggressive friction on the skin will thin your epidermis and break down collagen production. Maybe you ought to reconsider the brand you use if they find apricot kernels are acceptable.

  • KR

    So what is the healthy alternative?

  • Michaela

    I use Neostrata Smoothing Cream/Toner/Clarifying Cleanser and it’s been working great for my skin.

    Neostrata uses glycolic acid, which exfoliates without drying out the skin :)

  • Meg Nichol

    OMG! I’ve been using Cetaphil for 30 years! It’s a great makeup remover, too… :-(

  • nicole.be

    I use the oil cleansing method, or a mixture of almond flour, milk powder, and mung bean flour.

  • Brad

    It’s great to identify a problem with a product and instil a bit of fear in people who have been using it for years and years, but what about an alternative that is good for your skin? If you had any sort of care for you audience/readers than you would have done this.

  • Dr. Hawley

    Those ingredients are also found in dozens of other cosmeceuticals and almost every shampoo. The studies have demonstrated that minimal, if any, systemic levels of these ingredients are obtained with topical use. Readers – be aware that this site sells their own products. There is a HUGE conflict of interest.

    I deny any conflicts of interest with regards to this post.

  • Football Fan #1

    My son has been using Cetaphil and I switched him to Arbonne Clear Advantage for acne. There is also the FC5 line. Products are fragrance free, dye free, paraben free, no animal by products and PETA stamped. It’s a botanically based line and works well. tcook1.myarbonne.com

  • Donna Dregger

    In the 1970′s I worked in cancer research and we found this product to be carcinogenic way back then. I use Purpose cleansing wash from Target after they discontinued the Purpose bar soap.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Brad – We have 2 great articles on our blog with specific recommendations and products:
    http://www.drfranklipman.com/cleaner-cleansers-your-post-cetaphil-skin-care-regimen/
    http://www.drfranklipman.com/the-safer-way-to-make-up/
    -Laura, Be Well Health Coach

  • Anonymous

    Hi Brad – We have 2 great articles on our blog with specific recommendations and products:
    http://www.drfranklipman.com/cleaner-cleansers-your-post-cetaphil-skin-care-regimen/
    http://www.drfranklipman.com/the-safer-way-to-make-up/
    -Laura, Be Well Health Coach

  • Lisa Baarns

    Be aware, though, that EWG does not do any research, makes some claims that are completely false, and won’t change them even when simple facts, like ingredient lists that are flat incorrect, are pointed out. Companies have to pay them to get any air time. Sadly, it’s just no a reliable site.

  • Katie

    I use the Arbonne Calm Collection. All of their products adhere to the stricter European Union guidelines and do not contain any harmful ingredients.

  • Mandy

    We have switched over to nearly all organic food and while in the process, we realized the importance of reading labels on the products we use on our skin, as well. After being devoted to Cetaphil for 15 years I took a chance on a product line called Mychelle and I LOVE it. I am using the White Cranberry cleanser for acne prone skin and the corresponding serum and my skin truly has never looked better (except for maybe my pre-pubescent years ; ) Highly recommend checking it out!

  • Anonymous

    We have hand picked the safest,chemical/paraben free, organic facial cleansers and body care products in the market. (Often times recommened by the EWG) You can find them here http://www.healyounaturally.com/shop-naturally/ under {Safer Beauty Products} . Hope this helps :)

  • Kelli

    I use Arbonne and their products are fantastic!

  • Nicole licensed esthetician

    I wouldn’t recommend tea tree oil around the eyes!!!

  • Adri

    I use Cerave, anyone else?

  • Linda

    I don’t rely on Skin Deep for true answers about ingredients. I shop from a company with a green chemist behind the formulations – and one that I can get answers from directly. (Arbonne) The EWG is great because they are pushing for change in the cosmetics industry which is desperately needed, but Skin Deep has a kind of bogus rating system. What is the science behind the numbering system they use to assign to the ingredients? Every ingredient is sourced differently, and due to many variables behind each ingredient that only a chemist could truly understand, ingredients can’t always be arbitrarily rated on the same scale. Also, check these links out I found: http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/07/who-is-the-environmental-working-group-ewg/#disqus_thread AND http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/07/the-revealing-truth-of-the-money-trail-of-ewg/

  • EstyS

    As an esthetician, I agree this isn’t the best cleanser, but none of the ingredients are toxic or carcinogenic or hormonally disruptive and are safe at the levels used for the product, even the parabens, although the myth persists about them. Sodium laurel sulfate can cause irritation in some individuals, so it’s curious that they would include that ingredient in a cleanser for sensitive skin.

  • SQ

    Mychelle is fantastic. My main squeeze is Mario Badescu but Mychelle also finds herself on my shelves for certain things…love the Pumpkin Peel! I would recommend both companies to everyone.

  • Kim

    Origins is far from natural. Check the ingredients. They green wash to make you believe their products are safe and natural.

  • Kim

    I love Ava Anderson Non Toxic! The best facial cleanser that is absolutely 100% toxic chemicals free. Natural and organic!

  • Kim

    The apricot kernels are extremely fine and we don’t say to use the product every single day. They absolutely do not leave minuscule cuts. Any exfoliator if used too often or rubbed too harshly could technically leave minuscule cuts or be too aggressive. The key is that the ingredients in Ava Anderson are totally safe, non toxic, won’t harm the environment and if used properly, work really well. Ava Anderson has the safest products on the market. They also work for safer legislation and promote education to consumers. It is an amazing woman run company that truly cares about educating people about this important issue.

  • Kim

    Not true-check out their ingredients. Arbonne is a greenwasher-they claim to be safe and natural but contain numerous toxic chemicals. While the European guidelines are better than those in the US, they still only have banned 1300 toxic chemicals. Their are many more toxic chemicals out there that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and Arbonne contains many of them -including in their abby products! The proof is in the ingredients, the rest is just marketing.

  • Kim

    Not true-check out their ingredients. Arbonne has more than just botanical ingredients-they have tons of toxic chemicals. Arbonne is a greenwasher-they claim to be safe and natural but contain numerous toxic chemicals. Arbonnes products contain known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. The proof is in the ingredients, the rest is just marketing.

  • Kim

    When you use products every day, every week, even trace amounts add up. Besides we don’t just use one product with these types of ingredients. Most of these chemicals have not been tested to prove they are safe and have not been tested to see what happens when they combine. There are numerous clinical studies that show the dangers of these known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Did you know the FDA does not regulate personal care products? The average woman puts on over 500 toxic chemicals a day. The UN and WHO have said that endocrine disruptors are a global threat. It is time to do some more research for the safety of your clients.

  • Football Fan #1

    Thanks for your comment Kim. As I mentioned, it WORKED for my son. It’s been successful for my family, friends and countless others. Everything is not for everyone and I respect that. Also, at no time did I claim it to be all-natural. I mentioned it was botanically based, not all inclusive. However, it has been PETA stamped, paraben free–amongst others. Just providing my own experience with Cetaphil. Not trying to diminish others experiences. I’ve not found anything 100% natural that has worked for me, so Arbonne is my choice since it eliminates so many things that are important to me. Have a wonderful week! :)

  • Heather Alexander

    I use Arbonne. The products are pure, safe and beneficial.. all plant based, no parabens, no animal products, no testing animals, no gluten, etc etc… http://www.arbonne.com

  • Anonymous

    I’m so confused searching for facial and body cleanser. I’m pretty sure that the pH level of my skin is not in balance – my skin itches after taking a longer bath, it’s very dry and I have blemishes on my back and chest. I’m not using any soap or cleanser at the moment. I wash my makeup off with organic oil and put Dr Hauschka’s rose cream on face, chest and back – and yes, my skin appears to be getting better! On the rest of my body I only use an organic oil (currently sweet almond). I dry brush most days before taking a shower. I also have Dr Bronner’s baby soap, but I’ve read that it is extremely alkaline, I think it’s just way too harsh for my skin. I’m looking for something that I can use to clean the ‘dirtiest’ parts of my bad, i.e. genitals, armpits. Can you recommend something? Is too much dry brushing too much for the skin?

  • Chauna Suckie

    i tried this, it made my facial eczema even worse :(

  • Cynthia

    2 years ago I discovered a little known company from North Carolina (Nature’s Pearl) that has a line of skin care and personal care products that’s beyond natural, beyond organic, it’s certified toxic free! Rich in anti-oxidants and anti-aging properties, it is safe and appropriate for every age, even babies! I love not needing different products for the different ages in our house, and knowing that I’m nourishing my body with over 100 antioxidants daily instead of the toxins found in even products that are called organic. We are now independent distributors for this company. If you’d like information or a free sample of the lotion, I’d be happy to share with you.

  • Licensed esthetician

    Too glycolic can and will break down the skin too much resulting in thin, damaged skin. Unless you have very thick skin or thick acneic skin you should only be using it 3-5x/wk, giving your skin a break for few days

  • Shelly

    If anyone is looking for a natural approach to skin care L’BRI Pure ‘n Natural has aloe based natural skin care that helps a lot of people. http://www.shellypearson.lbri.com

  • Candy Johnstone

    Perfectly Posh. No Parabens, paraffins, soy, gluten, sls sulfates, phthalates, Made in America, and cruelty free.
    http://www.PoshedByCandy.com

  • Paramedical aesthetician M-J

    Are you kidding? Any natural particle is uneven in surface! It’s why it’s not recommended to use exfoliants with natural particles such as seeds or nuts in them, no matter how finely ground they are. And just because ingredients are natural doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful. Arsenic is a perfect example of this. Educate yourself people. The skin will only take in ingredients that are close to it’s own make-up. i.e. biomimetic. Everything else sits redundant on the surface.

  • Stephen Dimmick

    “Top NYC facialist” wants you to buy “Top $$$ products”

  • http://www.retireyoung.com.au/ Serena Star Leonard

    I use coconut oil as a makeup remover AND as a moisturiser. I have started using baking soda instead of shampoo and Apple cider vinegar as a conditioner. I know it sounds crazy but after I read this blog I tried it over the last week and my hair feels great!
    http://justsarahg.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/ill-never-shampoo-my-hair-again-ever-seriously/
    The less chemicals you use the better in my opinion and there are often genuinely amazing natural alternatives to most of the toxic things we use already. The only thing I have not found so far is something effective to replace aluminum in deodorant – it does work for me.

  • Cosmed

    Dermaviduals… Mimics the skins natural components.

  • skinfit warrnambool

    Try http://www.skinjuice.com.au a natural and healthy (enviro) product that cares about your skin, the environment and delivers results. It will not disturb your natural acid mantle and will help to strengthen your skin. It is available at awesome salons so you will have professional advice and it won’t rob you either.

  • Mandy A

    I use the BFF facial cleanser from Perfectly Posh, naturally-based, spa grade ingredients. No parabens, paraffins, sls, gluten, soy, or petroleum. Check it out… http://www.poshmandy.com

  • Mandy A

    Check out Perfectly Posh! http://www.poshmandy.com I use the BFF facial cleanser from Perfectly Posh, naturally-based, spa grade ingredients. No parabens, paraffins, sls, gluten, soy, or petroleum.

  • Kelli

    I agree about Origins. Terrible stuff, at least for my skin. Made my face puff up & turn bright red, almost looked like blisters. It was a terrible reaction to a gentle toner they carry.

  • Raven Jackson

    (SORRY THIS SOUNDS LIKE A COMMERCIAL BUT I LOVE SB PRODUCTS :-) I have used Sequoia Beauty for the last year and it is truly natures miracle. I had recently developed hyperpigmentation on my forehead (to many years of fun in the sun) and had to style my hair to cover it. I have always had normal skin and as I am into my late 30′s now my skin is dry. Laurels products are like heaven on earth. I have NO hyperpigmentation on my forehead (thanks to her Sun Damage Repair Serum) and my dryness is under control. Daily I use Hydrate and Renew Cream Cleanser and Transform Daily Moisturizer. I also use the Hydrate Night Cream/Mask at night before bed. I am going to include a quote from the SB website: http://www.sequoiabeauty.com
    “The majority of SB’s ingredients are grown by local farmers and herbalists, or straight from Laurel’s garden. Every ingredient is straight from plants, all non-gmo”

  • Deb

    Beauty Counter has a wonderful cream cleanser available online. It is called Routine Clean. It has organic coconut oil that cleanses, moisturizes and softens. Witch hazel tones the skin while aloe hydrates. Infused with botanical extracts such as geranium, lavender and green tea. Many cleansers use sodium laural sulfate and often is contaminated with1-4 cancer causing chemicals. This cleanser uses a sugar-derived cleanser, decyl glucoside. Been using this for a few months and I am 64 but my skin looks 20 years younger!

  • Amy Black

    Try Radiantly You Dead Sea Face Wash – completely chemical free, affordable and works very well. I was a very happy customer and am now a distributor. PM me for samples or more info on this amazing product.